And that sounds lovely. That’s why it’s on coffee mugs and bracelets and wall hangings. But in light of what’s going on in the world right now, it seems to beg the question: how does this verse actually apply to us? Is God actually speaking to us in this passage that was originally written for his chosen people in the days before Christ? What if we aren’t prospering, does that mean we’ve misunderstood the passage? Do we really believe that his plans for us in this time are not for evil as we face imminent suffering?
To be able to answer these questions we need to start with context. Where does this verse come from in the Bible? Who wrote it? What was going on? And who did God intend it for?
First off, the author of the book is Jeremiah. His father was a member of the Jewish priesthood, and we can imagine Jeremiah would have been raised with an extensive knowledge of God’s word as a pastor’s kid would be today. His ministry spanned five decades, most of them during great upheaval in the world. From Babylon, Syria, and Egypt there were wars, revolts, and worldwide turmoil. Jeremiah was God’s prophet (or messenger) during times of extensive stress with people in great need. During his ministry much of Israel was deported to Babylon as slaves.
None of this exactly sounds like the keeping of the promise that God has good for his people and a hope and a future. We can assume that as the Israelites were surrounded by oppressors and suffering on every side, that they felt hopeless, fearful, anxious, and doubted not only God‘s goodness but his existence. Many of us may find ourselves feeling similar feelings today or in the coming weeks as this virus continues to spread, hospitals begin to fill, and more people begin to pass away.
Yet that’s where we find God giving this word to Jeremiah to deliver to his chosen people. And as believers, people who have trusted in Jesus for our salvation, we are counted as sons and daughters, also, His chosen people. This verse absolutely applies to us but not in the way we might think at first glance.
In Jeremiah 29:4-9 God has Jeremiah telling people to prepare for a long stay in Babylon. He wants them to build houses and settle down, to plant gardens, life was to go on as normal when they arrived in the new land. He wanted them to marry and have sons and daughters. He told them they would be there 70 years. This seventy year exile was part of God‘s plan to give his people a hope in the future. The suffering they were heading towards, being exiled from their homes, prompted exiles to seek God wholeheartedly. Once they return back to their God He would gather them from all the nations to which they had been banished. God‘s greatest good for us will always be bringing us back to him.
We were not created to live apart from Him. If we think back to Adam and Eve in the garden, before sin, we are reminded that God‘s perfect plan was for us to live with Him and community, in harmony forever. With sin entering the garden and the world, that perfection exists no more and we are separated from Him. But we have been brought back into relationship through Jesus.
But even if we have proclaimed and previously exercised our trust in Christ and his sacrifice, we are all prone to wander. God uses suffering to draw us back to Him. When the comforts of this world (this could be food, people, drugs, alcohol, beauty, or a can-do attitude) don’t provide the satisfaction or safety they promise, where do we look? God’s design for the Israelites in exile was for them to proverbially “look up” and see Him when there was nowhere else to turn.
Much like the Israelites we are standing on the edge of great uncertainty, but God has our good in mind. The ultimate good is always Him and we can turn to him in this time of fear and suffering and find the only thing - the only person - who can deliver on all his promises of comfort and peace, even in exile, even in the chaos and uncertainty.
So you can see that Jeremiah 29:11 is in fact talking to a people who has long since passed. He is specifically talking about the plans that he has for the Israelites. He meant and kept his promise to bring them back to their home and to prosper them. This happened formally in 516 BC, 70 years later, as promised. So how does this verse apply to us, can we still quote it with meaning and hang it in our homes? Absolutely yes! Because this verse reveals much about God‘s character.
First of all, He knows the plans that he has for us. That is true for every person who ever lived. He is all-knowing of all things at all times. Worshiping an all-knowing God should give us much comfort when we know very little about what will happen today, tomorrow or in the coming weeks.
Also, He knows all the plans. He had a plan for the Israelites and He has a plan for us. Like the Israelites the plan may include suffering, but we can trust that it is ultimately for our good and not for evil. We can believe this on the darkest of days, the God who sent His son to suffer and pay for our sin, what would that good God deny us if He would suffer on our behalf? This does not mean we are asked to delight in our suffering because God is using it for our good. There are so many examples of lament and crying out to God in Jeremiah as well as the rest of God’s Word. It does mean that in the lament we can cry out to Him, knowing He will use the suffering we are experiencing for our good.
Jeremiah goes on speaking God’s words in verse 12 to say, “Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you, declares the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all nations and all the places where I’ve driven you, declares the Lord and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you in exile.”
As you can see, some of these promises are not really extended to us. They don’t apply, as we haven’t been sent and exiled, but again these verses speak to God’s goodness. His ultimate desire is that we would call upon him and come and pray to him and he assures us that he will hear us. He says that when we seek him with all of our heart we will find him, meaning he will reveal himself to us. What a gift! The verse then talks about restoring the Israelites’ physical possessions and physically gathering from the nations. We know that if he, the unchanging God, who does not waver day to day, restored the physical belongings to his chosen people all those years ago, how much more can we trust him to restore our hearts from sadness to gladness. He will likely restore other things that we lost, but that is not the promise to us. The promises that clearly are applicable to us are enough: He knows the plans that he has for us, and even if they include suffering they are for our good and not for evil. He has our future in mind. He desires that we call upon him and pray to him, and he promises to hear us. We are to seek him and he will reveal himself. He will restore us spiritually.
So the next time you see Jeremiah 29:11 on a bracelet or a wall hanging or a mug I hope that you remember some of this context: That this verse speaks to our king’s character, his perfect love for us, and his promise to remain in relationship with us as we seek him. He will never leave us or forsake us. In the midst of this season I believe that many of us will be tempted to question his goodness as we suffer, or the people we love suffer, or our community suffers. I pray that this verse will be used by Him to tether our hearts to Him, the greatest good, the only unchanging, unwavering truth in these times of unrest.